UNE Researchers look at the impact of ancient contamination

Published 26 April 2016

Researchers from the University of New England are measuring the long-term effects of contamination and pollution from 3000 years ago.

Dr Matthew Tighe from the School of Environmental and Rural Science said the research in central Thailand would give them an idea on the very long-term effects of pollution, which could be used in Australia.

Soil sampling 1

“We are studying the bronze-age smelting sites that were used in early attempts to purify copper. At these sites, archaeologists have reported abnormally high levels of pig miscarriages during times of ancient metal working. So there was some suggestion of pollution in the ancient environment.”

Dr Tighe said they want to know if there is still a risk 3000-years later of exposure to plants, crops and people from elements, such as copper, that were left.

“We know it was very likely problem a few thousand years ago, but we don’t know if it still is. These sites have been completely unassessed for this type of pollution. We want to investigate the potential contamination of this ancient material in the modern day environment.”

Researchers are using the same type of x-ray technology as that used on the Mars Curiosity Rover to identify and assess the sites.

“They look like star trek stun guns, they can identify very quickly if there is high level of copper on site. The sites in central Thailand have been quite hard to find, they look like a slight raised soil mound in agricultural land. The smallest site is 50 metres long. This technology can help us quickly identify a site. But our ultimate goal is to take our equipment on site and do all the analysis there. By using this technology it can give us the results in minutes instead of it taking weeks.”

Dr Tighe said the research could have implications for the mining sites in Australia.

“What this research does is it gives us an idea of the very long term effects of any mistakes we might make now. We can assess an area like central Thailand, that had a pollution problem 2000-3000 years ago, and reverse engineer what problems we may be giving ourselves in the far future here at home.”

Researchers expect to have the first results in the next three months.